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Cutting School Meal Calories (Without “Permission”)


In a September 5, 2012, featured news story, The New York Times reported that over the past decade, the City’s public school food program may sometimes have erred on the side of a few too food calories per [USDA-qualified] school meal in it aggressive efforts to make those meals healthier and more nutritious. (see “In City Fight Against Fat, Lunch Trays Got Too Lean")

I am sure this news comes as no surprise to the many school nutrition directors across the country who have also struggled to meet those same standards over the last decade.  The fact that some of New York City’s school meal calorie totals may have contained “fewer calories than required by the federal government” and that they sere served this way “”without seeking permission” even as they did meet USDA's other nutritional guidelines would seem a pretty minor violation, especially given the fact that those same meals would probably meet the  newest USDA rules that are being implemented with the school year now just beginning. 

What it underscores, though, is just how constraining those regulations are, requiring as they do not just very specific mandatory nutrition components but also restrictive sodium levels, beverage constraints and narrow windows of upper and lower caloric counts that differ for lower, middle and high school grades.

To me, at least, it also suggests the kinds of “violations,” documented or not, that are likely to be widespread in the now-ongoing implementation of those new rules in districts large and small across the country this year. Many of us hope for the best. But even the most supportive nutrition directors and consultants I know are more than willing to share their sense of the widespread confusion that has accompanied the program’s launch.

The release of ambiguous rule “guidances,” many of them well past official deadlines;  excessively bureaucratic interpretations of Congressional intent; and the failure of Congress to address many longstanding program complications (e.g., funding inequities caused by regional labor cost differences, anyone?) only add to the difficulty.

Step beyond the present, though, and still to be determined is whether all these efforts will in fact have a measurable impact on the metrics that truly matter: the health and obesity levels of children in New York and elsewhere; the eating choices those children make as they grow and become young adults; and the long term dietary behavior and knowledge they carry and as they begin to form and raise families of their own.

Those of us in the “adult” population are entering that time of year when our annual health insurance program options for the coming year will soon be announced, and large numbers of us will find those often contain increasing restrictions and stipulations that relate to our lifestyles, weights, BMIs and other metrics.

Many of us would do well to study what these new school meal guidelines are seeking to accomplish and to emulate them in our own lives. All of us should hope that they have their intended effects, regardless of how difficult they are to implement. Our society has much that hinges on their success. 

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